Food insecurity spreads in Jewish community

On Monday afternoon at Crown Center, Dorothy Clark packs kosher meals that will be delivered to some residents at Crown and to others in the wider community.  Crown prepares the meals for delivery once a day Monday through Friday. Photo:  Mike Sherwin 

By Ellen Futterman, Editor

Susan is a 57-year-old Jewish woman who has been receiving government disability assistance since she was 29, when she could no longer work. She says she was hospitalized 13 times last year, for everything from congestive heart failure to kidney failure to circulatory problems. The latter have made it extremely difficult, and very painful, for her to walk. 

Susan, who asked that her real name not be used, lives with her elderly, diabetic mother and a brother in suburban St. Louis. Her brother moved here several years ago so he could help his sister and mother. 

Susan’s brother learned of something that has helped significantly – home delivery of kosher meals. Susan and her mother now receive these meals through a program run by Crown Center for Senior Living in University City. (The Jewish Community Center also offers home delivery of kosher meals to those who qualify. Both programs request a nominal donation, though it isn’t required.)

“The meals are very important to my mother and me,” Susan says. “I never learned to cook, and my legs are so bad now that even if I wanted to, I couldn’t. My mother can no longer cook. So the meals really help us out.”

With the option to get meals delivered to her home five times a week – and frozen meals for the weekend, if needed – Susan and her mother can count on eating some nutritious food daily. But Susan and others in the St. Louis Jewish community, including rabbis, wonder how many Jewish people are barely eking by, or lack enough resources to take care of themselves and their families.

“I am greatly concerned about these people, especially the ones who feel ashamed and do not reach out for help, who remain invisible to us,” says Rabbi Susan Talve of Central Reform Congregation. “It’s definitely gotten worse over the past few years. It’s not just the elderly who may have to choose between (paying for) food or medicine, but also middle-class people out of work, struggling to keep their homes and make their car payments.”

“Resources are stretched so thin — even more so now with recent cuts to SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assis-tance Program, also known as food stamps). Food pantries are seeing more demand but have less to give. So more people will have to do without healthy, nutritious food.”

Talve and other area rabbis say the number of congregants asking for financial help has steadily increased, and not only (congregants) from their own shuls

“We get calls from people in the Orthodox community who feel ashamed to tell their rabbi they need help,” says Talve, who, like other local rabbis, often draws on a discretionary fund to give to those in need. 

Rabbi Menachem Tendler of U. City Shul says congregants will hand him money and say, “ ‘Use this to help someone who can’t pay his electric bill or mortgage.’ What I have found is that these people (who give money) may be sitting in shul next to the person (their money) helped and no one is the wiser.”

In November, Rabbi Andrea Goldstein of Congregation Shaare Emeth and 14 families at the synagogue participated in a SNAP challenge, the goal of which was to live on $31.50 per person in food stamps for a week. She soon learned from some congregants that this was not just an exercise but their reality.

“This is not just an issue that takes place among the urban poor,” said Goldstein. “(Rabbi) Jim (Bennett) and I both received emails from congregants that said, ‘You are talking to me. This is my life.’”

Victims of the economy

Jewish St. Louisans, like many others throughout the country, have been hurt by the uncertain economy of the past seven years. Cuts in federal food-stamp programs have left some in an even more vulnerable position. Those who work at food pantries say demand is great while supply is, at best, erratic and, at worst, insufficient to meet growing needs.

It’s difficult to determine how many people in the St. Louis Jewish community need food assistance. The Harvey Kornblum Jewish Food Pantry, which is believed to be the largest food pantry in the area, may contain the word “Jewish” in its name, but it serves people of all faiths primarily in St. Louis and St. Louis County. Clients are surveyed about their religion, but they aren’t required to discuss it. Of those who do, close to 10 percent served in the last year at the Kornblum pantry were Jewish, according to manager Cory Eichorn. 

“If we assume 50,000 people in the (St. Louis) Jewish community, then over the last year alone we reached almost 12 percent,” says Eichorn.  “Statistics show that 12 to 15 percent of the (St. Louis) Jewish community live below the federal poverty level, so we are reaching a high percentage of those in need.”

Marcia Mermelstein, coordinator of the Kornblum food pantry, adds, “We have people all the time now who are unemployed or under-employed who come and say, ‘My family used to donate food here and now I am shopping here. It is just so hard.’ ”

Of course, not all Jews who use food pantries go to the Kornblum facility at 10601 Baur Boulevard. Beverly Mauzy, a resident at Covenant House who grew up Jewish, prefers Loaves and Fishes food pantry in Maryland Heights and Operation Food Search in St. Louis. She also receives a government subsidized food box once a month filled with nonperishables, including cereal, powdered milk, rice, and canned fruits and vegetables.

“Honestly, if it weren’t for Covenant House and the Jewish Federation, I would be living in my car,” says Mauzy, 71, who describes herself as being “upper middle-class” for much of her adult life. She lived with her husband, who was a car salesman, in a comfortable home in Ballwin for 20-plus years. When the economy took a turn for the worse in 2007, his business suffered; eventually, he got sick and was placed in a nursing home. 

“We had no savings whatsoever,” Mauzy said. “We were living on credit cards and running up thousands of dollars in credit-card debt, just to stay afloat. I wound up filing for bankruptcy to the tune of $30,000.”

The only silver lining, she says, is that she eventually met the qualifications to move into Covenant Place, which provides 420 federally subsidized apartment units for senior adults and the mobility-impaired on the I.E. Millstone Jewish Community Campus. 

Executive Director Joan Denison says 50 percent of the residents at Covenant Place are clients of the Kornblum food pantry. While the majority of those 50 percent are Jewish, not all are since people of all faiths and backgrounds live there. In addition, 34 percent receive government food boxes, which, Denison says, are provided to people only in an extremely low-income category.

“Most have no more than $1,000 a month,” she says. 

Meals make a difference

Both Covenant Place and Crown Center offer one kosher meal to residents and nonresidents over the age of 60 Monday through Friday. At Crown, there is a suggested donation of $3 per meal; at Covenant, $3.50. The average donation is $1 and $1.40, respectively. 

At Crown, which provides housing and support services to more than 250 seniors with limited financial resources, an average of 60 people partake in the meal each day. At Covenant, where meals are provided through the Jewish Community Center’s Kitchen J program, the number is slightly higher. (Kosher meals are also provided to clients at the JCC’s adult daycare program.)

“If it’s tuna night, there may be 60 people,” Denison says. “If it’s brisket and kasha night, it may be 100 or 150.”

Both Denison and Nikki Goldstein, executive director of Crown Center, say that nowadays, they are seeing a different profile among their residents. 

“There are many more younger people,” Goldstein says, adding that the average age at Crown is 72. At Covenant Place, the median age has dropped nine years since 2012. 

 “We are seeing more middle-class people who had home mortgages, then lost their jobs in 2008 and 2009 and could no longer afford those homes,” Denison says. “They tried to find employment but couldn’t. They’ve used whatever savings they had to keep their homes but eventually needed to find a more affordable housing option.”

Adds Goldstein: “It’s not so much hunger, per se, but a whole package of financial stresses due to lower finances. As a result, they may not be able to make good choices nutritionally because they have other needs. That’s why the meal program is so important.”

Amen to that, says Rachel, who is Jewish, in her mid-60s and has numerous health issues. She says she would go to bed hungry if it weren’t for those meals. Having lost her job and no longer able to afford the upkeep on her home of 30-plus years, Rachel, who asked that her real name not be used, fears she would be “living in the streets” had she not qualified to move into Crown Center a couple of years ago. 

“This isn’t the life I envisioned, but at least I have a roof over my head and one nutritious meal a day,” Rachel says, adding that she “makes do” for the rest of her meals. 

Marya, 87, a Russian Jewish widow who has lived at Covenant House since 1990, has become a pro at making do. She has an income of $710 a month, but after paying rent, her phone bill and other living expenses, there isn’t much left over for food. 

She receives a monthly government-issued food box, though she gives away what she doesn’t use from it to neighbors. 

And while she is appreciative of the help, Marya, who asked that only her first name be used, explains: “Some of what is in the box is not so good for the Russian people. We are not so used to canned food with so many preservatives.”

So Marya has gotten creative. She shops at discount groceries such as Aldi and makes soups and stews that will last for several days, substituting fresh vegetables for meat. She bakes her own bread. Nutrition and her native foods are important to her.

“During (the Siege of) Leningrad (1941-44), there was such hunger, such starvation,” she recalls. “People ate the flesh of the corpses, that’s how hungry they were.

“After that kind of desperation and starvation, you can’t complain. You have to appreciate, and manage, with what you have.”